LightScythe: Behind the Luminescent Photo Creation

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Creative design is everywhere, especially when there are makers around. This subculture is reviving design, innovation, and ingenuity in the hardware development space, proving that you don’t need big bucks to make a big technological impact.

One of these makers is “The Mechatronics Guy,” also known as Gavin Smith. The Sydney-based maker, who tinkers in the city’s hackerspace Robots and Dinosaurs, caught major buzz this year for his LightScythe, an LED-based wireless device that allows a user to project any graphic into a long-exposure photo. Smith’s demonstrations, of Pac Man in front of the Sydney Opera House or Nyan Cat floating in the city, wowed the Internet and had people clamoring for a device. So, Smith embraced the maker philosophy and made all the plans free to the public.

“Dozens of people told me I should patent or make a business selling LightScythes,” Smith wrote on his website. “I’m not really into that (but it’s open source, so feel free to make your own!).”

Mashable spoke with Smith on the inspiration for his DIY dynamo, the motivations of maker culture and new projects on the horizon.

What are your thoughts on the LightScythe — would you want your own? Let us know in the comments.

Q&A With LightScythe Creator Gavin Smith

What was the inspiration for the design of the LightScythe?

I’m a big fan of colorful things, and I always liked night photography and light painting. And a couple of years ago, I had a huge bulk amount of LEDs laying around and was wondering what I could do with them. I’d had the idea for programmable arrays in my head for a while, and I realized that I could use a 1D setup and move it to get the same effect. 

What were the challenges in designing the LightScythe? Was it difficult to keep it hand-held and mobile?

I had to change the way I did the lighting control a few times until I found something cheaper and more reliable. The wireless link to the laptop was surprisingly easy to implement, and I was aided enormously by free tools and the open source community.

What was it like to create the LightScythe for the first time? Did you have any failed prototypes?

Absolutely. The version up on my website is about my third attempt, and the LED technology has gotten a lot cheaper and easier since I’ve been trying. I’ve got a prototype at home that never worked reliably and probably cost $500. Compare that to the current price, which would probably be in the order of $100 in parts. 

Seeing the image first appear was very, very satisfying. It took a bit of tweaking until I was happy with the effect, but at that point I knew that it would work. 

You’ve made some pretty epic designs with that device. What is your favorite?

I think I’ve really only scratched the surface with photos, we haven’t taken many so far. My current scythe is a bit tricky to use, since it requires a laptop and wireless link to send the image, as well as the camera and the scythe itself and that’s not easy to wrangle when you’re in front of crowded Sydney landmarks. 

My favorite photos are the ones that show interaction between the scene and the image. Water and reflections are nice for this, as are shiny surfaces like marble. You can see that the image is really in the environment, not photoshopped in. 

The Internet is all over your LightScythe. Have you heard from other people who have made one?

Definitely. There’s a chap in Texas who I later discovered had made one before me, but the process was much more involved, and you had to create an Excel sheet for each image. There’s also been at least two people who’ve taken my version and made improved versions of their own. 

And just last week someone from Robots and Dinosaurs made their own version of the LightScythe, complete with Wi-Fi and a mobile phone interface! 

The maker community is all about encouraging creativity. How has your involvement impacted your other work?

Seeing the techniques and tools used in the maker movement has certainly helped my work. The other day I was able to cobble together a pulse counter. Being in a community of like-minded people makes all the difference. Feedback and encouragement is always important when you’re working on things. Really importantly, there’s no one in the group with a complete set of skills in every subject.

What’s your favorite kind of maker technology or design?

Tricky — there’s been so much new technology recently which is cool for makers to work with. It’s probably the laser cutter. It’s versatile, you can use it on loads of different materials, and if you can draw something on a computer you can cut it out in a few minutes. I’ve made boxes, lanterns, signs, engraved gears that really work, as well as loads of other things using it. 

How do you stay creative?

That’s a really good question, and it’s tricky to answer. I carry a notebook with me everywhere, and jot down ideas as they come to me. A quick sketch so that I can visit the idea later is essential. Finding a balance between dropping everything to chase a new idea, and holding off to finish your current project is always difficult. I — and most of the people I know — have dozens of unfinished projects around their house. 

What’s your next project? What do you want to accomplish in the future?

I just finished off a recreation of a medieval wax tablet, which was the device for jotting things down before paper was commonplace. And, for kicks, I made another version that’s an iPhone.

Another project I’m working on is a model of a particle accelerator. I was lucky enough to be involved in the building of the Australian Synchrotron, and I’m hoping to make a scale model of how it works. Here’s prototype 4, and I’ve cut but not assembled number 5: 

The final one will have a series of about 20 balls going around at any one time and two rings that are synchronized, injecting from one into the empty spots in the other. Unlike the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the particles don’t collide with each other, but instead produce ultra-bright light which is used for scientific research. 

On a longer scale, I’ve got a few more projects on the boil involving light, color and movement that I’m hoping to finish off soon. There’s a night lighting & art exhibition in Sydney called “Vivid,” and I’m hoping to present something there next year. 

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